The myth of meritocracy in America’s university system

The new book, The Merit Myth: How our colleges favor the rich and divide America* has many strengths and one major weakness.

Among its strengths are:

• The deconstruction of the official ‘meritocratic’ story of their education system that Americans like to tell themselves;

• Its succinct explanation of how racism undercuts and continues to hobble black and Latino students from even reaching university education;

• The explanation of how the wealthy buy their children’s way into elite schools like Harvard;

• Showing how, in the name of ‘merit’, state governments lavishly fund flagship universities like the University of California at Berkeley instead of the open access state universities and community colleges that educate the vast majority of Americans who go on to post-secondary education; and

• How supposedly objective admissions tests, such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), fail to predict success even as they limit access to upper tier universities such as Columbia or Princeton, which require high SAT scores.

Even though Thomas Jefferson did not intend ‘men’ in the opening of the Declaration of Independence (“All men are created equal”), the standard story of American history pictures him as a small ‘d’ democrat.

The book’s co-authors Anthony P Carnevale, Peter Schmidt and Jeff Strohl show, however, that John Adams, the revolutionary leader and America’s second president, whom we would now call a small ‘c’ conservative, feared the Sage of Monticello’s notion of education being “a sorting machine” that would produce a “natural aristocracy”, an elite who should and would rule.

Instead, Adams, a gloomy Harvard-educated lawyer, saw in Jefferson’s panacea the seeds of something other than the production of experts: the creation of a class that would use access to education as a means to perpetuate its own power, as the book demonstrates has happened.

The requirement that Protestants had to read the Bible is why through the 18th and 19th centuries the United States led the world in the creation of common schools that also educated girls; in the mid-19th century reformers such as Horace Mann worked to improve the education of the nation’s poor immigrants. Yet, the American education systems have always been stratified: note the plural.

Unlike modern-day France, for example, where there is one education system, in America primary and secondary education has always been a local affair. This meant that it was funded locally, historically from property taxes, with the predictable result that richer districts had better schools and that students in these schools have a better chance of going on to high education.

Prior to their emancipation in 1865, black slaves risked their lives to learn to read. Jim Crow laws, many of which were in force until the 1960s, ensured that black children attended separate and entirely unequal public schools. Today the albatross of local funding perpetuates the discrepancy for blacks, Latinos and whites from poor areas.

Though the American dream, celebrated by authors like Horatio Alger, attributes success to an amalgam of virtue and ‘pluck’, access to post-secondary education was and is unequal. Bars against women attending Harvard, Yale and other universities led, in the mid-1800s, to the establishment of women’s colleges such as Vassar and Mount Holyoke.

Were it not for colleges such as Howard University in Washington, which was founded in 1867 to educate the freedmen, or Oberlin in Ohio, blacks were largely barred from university education until the 1960s. The quota limiting Jewish enrolment in Princeton was in place until I was six years old.

Though the ‘land grant’ universities established under Abraham Lincoln in the mid-west and western states extended post-secondary education to millions (the greatest jumps coming from the GI Bill following World War II and then the baby boom), in the past few decades state governments have starved these institutions of funds.

State universities, for example, educate 55% of students but receive only 21% of the various states’ higher education grants. The perversity of this is seen in this statistic: at the elite schools, which enrol a vastly disproportionate number of wealthy students, students pay 20 cents of every dollar to fund their education while at the large state universities they pay 80 cents of every dollar.

Not surprisingly, the graduation rate for the elite universities is 82% while it is only 49% for the other tiers. Nationwide, community colleges and state universities are first on the chopping block when it comes time for belt-tightening at the state level.

Elite state schools, such as the University of Pennsylvania, are almost as lavishly funded as the old-line Ivy League schools such as Harvard. The defence of spending more on these institutions and students is merit, of which, the authors show, there are two kinds. Both are manufactured.

His point is not that these institutions do not turn out world-class work. Rather, in the battle for funding, they up their league table rankings by inviting more and more students to apply for a limited number of spaces – which allows them to prove their elite status by showing the small percent of applicants they actually enrol.

That a healthy per cent of those accepted are legacy (children of graduates) or connected to donors or other members of the great and the good is not always hidden: William R Johnston, former president of the New York Stock Exchange and trustee of the New College of Florida, boasted that when he learns of a promising high schooler, he comes out (in the aptly American phrase) “with all guns firing”.

Elite schools also manufacture their status through their reliance on admissions testing scores. While countries like Japan and Britain are famous for their national testing regimens to determine who goes on to university, the United States relies on privately administered tests, such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).

Instead of testing for knowledge learned, this test, developed out of the IQ tests America used to choose officers in the First World War, claims to judge, “critical thinking ability”, according to its marketer, Educational Testing Service.

Putting aside its origins in the racist IQ tests and its own history of asking questions that assumed a white, male, middle class student, the test, as Carnevale, Schmidt and Strohl show, from a myriad of studies fails to predict how students will do during the freshman year.

My math score was low and my English score decidedly middling, yet, at Bard College in central New York State starting in 1976 and later at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, I was never not an honours student through my BA, MA and PhD – all in English. I escaped the SAT trap because my parents had the means to send me to a small liberal arts college, where I flourished; millions of Americans are not so lucky.

Non-Americans may find the book’s discussion of the legal fights around Affirmative Action bewildering. But it is worth soldiering on to see how, starting in 1969 conservative judges turned the logic of equal access on its head and began ruling that efforts to counter more than a century of racism were, themselves, racist.

One of the most important takeaways from Carnevale, Schmidt and Strohl’s discussion are the paragraphs that show that even at height of the civil rights movement, efforts to integrate America’s universities had as much to do with countering the appeal of Communism as it did with moral right.

Each of the references above to other countries are mine, for, surprisingly, The Merit Myth is all but devoid of cross-national comparisons. This weakness is most evident in its final chapter, “College for All”, which, among other proposals (including ditching the SATs), urges extending the K-12 stream to grade 14.

Whether this re-jigging of the education would actually improve access and outcomes could have benefited from a comparison with two education systems a scant five hundred miles away from the authors’ offices at Georgetown University in Washington DC. Ontario, Canada did away with grade 13 less than two decades ago, yet, today a greater percentage of students go on to post-secondary than before.

Quebec’s education system is divided into three parts: a mandatory K-11 stream followed by two years of what amounts to junior college (which almost every student goes to) and then three years of university. Under this system, the numbers of students going on to post-secondary education has grown.

This caveat aside, both Americans and non-Americans will find much to chew on in this book, even as they shake their heads in disbelief at the structural failings of American post-secondary education.

*The Merit Myth: How our colleges favor the rich and divide America, Anthony P Carnevale, Peter Schmidt and Jeff Strohl (2020), The New Press.